Monday, March 29, 2010

Idle Thoughts of an Idle Mouse: Nonstandard Systems Part 2

Oh boy! More nonstandard systems! I bet everyone is excited. I am going to go on about nonstandard measurement systems now.

I started thinking about this while reading The Poetics of Military Occupation, by Smadar Lavie (which, by the way, I highly recommend). The book is an ethnography written by an Israeli woman about the Sinai Bedouins, and does not have much to do, as a whole, with what I am here to consider, but this passage that caught my eye:
"She was silent. He was silent. They remained wrapped in their own silences for about an hour, until ants began to crawl into the anthropologist's brain. She was getting fidgety. She sketched one camel after another in her notebook, retied her headdress, scratched her knee, poked her ear, drew more camels." (page 166)
While I could go on an entirely different rant about how much I love her writing and the merits of a narrative voice in ethnography, I will refrain. Although I do love a narrative voice in ethnography. Instead, I will go on a rant about measuring things using other, unrelated things.

Lavie's camels, here, are a unit of time. The act of sketching a camel indicates duration without relying on a clock. Compare the two stretches of time that she describes in these sentences. First, they are silent "for about an hour," a literal and standard measurement, but afterwards her portrayal of time becomes fanciful, and gives a sense of "being there" (to borrow Clifford Geertz's term) that was wholly absent from "about an hour."

Perhaps sketching camels is indicative of a greater theme within the book - the Lavie the anthropologist and Lavie the woman living immersed with the Mzeina Beduoin, measuring her time both in her participation in the culture and the representation of it that she creates. But maybe not - my literary analysis may be getting out of hand here, as well as my assumptions about how many people have actually read this book. The point is, her units - camels and fidgets - create a measure that is useless for stopwatches, but vastly more informative for readers.

I don't think this is just a literary quirk of hers - people have a tendency to apply a touch of metaphor to their measurements. The example that comes to mind is time and money - I know that when I first got a job, I tried converting the price of things I wanted to buy into hours of my life spent at work. A new pair of skates costs 35 hours of work, a pen costs half an hour, et cetera. This is not really the case at all - skates and pens are priced in dollars and that is the way that it is, but with an easy conversion (we all have fond memories of dimensional analysis from high school chemistry, right?) connections surface within more abstract values. The mere idea of considering cost as time reflects the value of time beyond the monetary level - is it worth devoting this much of my life to this product?

My favorites are the measurement systems that require metaphor rather than dimensional analysis, as there are few things that please me more than the overlap of narrative and technical elements. The most obvious approach is to measure something using the units of something else - density in decibels, or length in volts. I admit it might not fly on a lab report, but it has a deep poetic appeal. Alternatively, measure quantitative things using qualitative indicators, or vice versa. Happiness in terms of dollars, or duration in terms of enjoyment.

To make any sense of the disconnect between what is being measured and the units used, one has to reconcile them, find the abstract, emotional, or otherwise non-concrete link, and in the process evoke a deeper connection within the individual. Measuring happiness in terms of dollars, for example, says something about a person that is much more complex than their ability to use a little metaphor here and there.

Anyway, my point is that I find this phenomenon fascinating and I'm keeping an eye out for it, because surely it is indicative of something.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! So many measurements, and so little time.

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